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Jay Lake
Date: 2009-03-11 04:44
Subject: [process] Lazy edges
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
James Gurney, art writing guru, is at it again, this time talking about "lazy edges". Go read his post, then come back here. I'll be waiting for you, I promise.

A strong analog of this problem exists in fiction, especially short fiction. All too often we see characters who primarily exist for the purpose of appearing on the page and advancing the story in some fashion. As someone once said to me of half-squads in Squad Leader, "What an existence, you live in a plastic baggie and only come out to die."

Tom Stoppard of course took this head-on in the incredible play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead [ Wikipedia | imdb ]. And of necessity, minor characters don't usually have the same richness as protagonists and major supporting cast. That's why they're minor characters.

But in good fiction, as in real life, everybody has an existence outside our purview. I once heard someone on a panel explain this as "the red slipper effect." (A term, and explanation, I have stolen shamelessly in the years since.) Sherlock Holmes stories generally begin with a comment from Watson along the lines of, "shortly after the Case of the Red Slipper had been resolved..." That gives you a sense that Watson and Holmes were doing something before the events under narration took place.

A type specimen of lazy edges in fiction is the classic Turkey City move of beginning a story with a character waking up. There's no transition into the action, there's no dangling margins, everything begins cleanly and moves forward according to the needs of the story.

Real life is messy, with loose ends and contradictory threads and missing information even on the best days. Fiction should be the same way, all while not confusing the reader. Sounds complicated? It is. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But lazy edges will kill a story before it ever gets started — for the acquiring editor or the eventual reader both.

Do you have a favorite example of lazy edges? Or by contrast, busy edges? Me, I like the opening sentence of John Varley's Steel Beach Amazon ].

And if this doesn't quite gel for you yet, try a little bit of flash. Write a piece with deliberately lazy edges, then write the same piece with intensely busy edges. See how they feel.

Originally published at jlake.com.

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User: manmela
Date: 2009-03-11 13:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've been thinking about this lately but in terms of pacing rather than plot. A lot of my storytelling is following a 3-act structure made popular by Hollywood. I use it because it's safe, but the problem is that it results in lazy edges: there has to be some peak of conflict at the end of act 2, and it has to be resolved in act 3.

I'm not saying that a 3 act structure can't work but it has a tendency to funnel me towards having everything a little too wrapped up by the end
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User: etcet
Date: 2009-03-11 13:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Busy edges = world-building

I am a huge fan of the implication of characters or environment having a life outside of the story, but my own attempts at doing so are, to my ear, ham-handed.
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Michael Curry: brutal
User: mcurry
Date: 2009-03-11 14:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A type specimen of lazy edges in fiction is the classic Turkey City move of beginning a story with a character waking up. There's no transition into the action, there's no dangling margins, everything begins cleanly and moves forward according to the needs of the story.

To me that's one to file under "things not to do in the sample pages you send with your query," especially if said character then gets out of bed and looks at themself in a mirror.

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Living for the Revel
User: catvalente
Date: 2009-03-11 17:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I love this way of thinking...
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Leah Cutter: Pas de deux
User: lrcutter
Date: 2009-03-11 21:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Pas de deux
Victor and I were just talking about this last night. One of my (our) favorite books is "Growing up Weightless" by Mike Ford. It has *very* busy edges. So much is going on outside the text of the story, and the ending -- not everything is neatly tied in a bow. The story continues.
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User: kmarier
Date: 2009-03-11 22:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
*snerk* I quite agree with him, both about writing and Poussin (though he's certainly not the only artist to have done so).
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Adam Israel: manga
User: stonetable
Date: 2009-03-12 16:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's an interesting thought. I know I've struggled with the concept. Popular advice to new writers seems to include "cut out any word that doesn't move the story forward" and that didn't feel quite right to me.

Thanks for the link and food for thought!
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User: ken_schneyer
Date: 2009-03-12 18:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Varley's first line is a classic, of course. I also like the opening of John Irving's The Water-Method Man: "Her gynecologist recommended him to me." Four characters in six words.

Now, I happen to be a fan of the in medias res opening, so I think my own writing tends to follow your advice. But I can imagine situations where a long establishing-shot opening ("Once upon a time," "In the land of Westphalia," "Call me Jonah") is appropriate.

It's a question, after all, of the kind of story you're trying to tell at the moment. Let's not forget the best waking-up line of all: "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."
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